Monday, January 3, 2011
Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust: A Review
The following review was written for Writing the Holocaust by Dr. Danusha Goska:
When I was a kid, my mother took me to her natal village in Slovakia. It was like standing under an avalanche of relatives: poor Catholics, rich Communists, city mice, country cousins, hugs, kisses, slivovice. I was taken aside and given a speech before we met one aunt. During WWII, advancing Red Army soldiers gang-raped her when she was a little girl, I was told, and she had taken it badly. She had never had the normal romantic life of a young woman. When she was close to spinsterhood, an exceptional man – a dissident – married her. He understood that she could never give him children. Around her, I was to be particularly restrained in my behavior. "She had taken it badly": this locution suggested to me that others of my loved ones had been raped, as well. This Slovak woman was different not because she was violated by invaders, but because she had taken it badly.
During that 1974 visit, we were surrounded by street banners announcing Soviet domination. We were in Czechoslovakia six years after Soviet tanks crushed 1968's "Prague Spring." Graffiti from '68 was visible on buildings. The Russians left the graffiti up, my mother said, to emphasize to the Slovaks their complete impotence in the face of Soviet power. My aunt's husband, the dissident, lived the life of a non-person – no work, few friends, no freedom of movement. We ran into Russian soldiers everywhere. I made faces at them. My mother chided me. "It's not their fault. They're just kids."
My aunt, when I met her, surprised. She had the modestly pretty mien of a 1950s TV sitcom mom, and she was deeply gracious. All my loved ones had spent their lives wrestling with crushing forces. This aunt stood out. She radiated: "I know I am broken and vulnerable, and I build what strength I have on awareness of that."
I am not special because I have an aunt who was sexually violated by invaders under whose thumb she lived most of her life. My friend, the poet John Guzlowski, introduced me, via his poetry, to his Aunt Sophie, who was raped, and his Aunt Genia, who was murdered and sexually mutilated with a bayonet, by Nazis and Ukrainians. Another friend's mother was injected with chemicals in a Nazi concentration camp as part of an experiment to discover methods to mass-sterilize Poles.
In the US, I attended meetings for survivors of sexual assault. Every survivor there knew that a conquered territory where anything goes can be as small as a suburban bedroom. One California grandmother discovered this truth on December 3, 2010. Her two-year-old granddaughter was sexually assaulted by another shopper in a Dollar Store as she Christmas shopped in the next aisle. "Man is wolf to man," Janusz Bardach said. Bardach, a Polish Jew, had been a devout leftist. Imprisonment in the notorious Soviet gulag of Kolyma cured him of that.
What to make of the evil of sexual violation? Scholar Peter Viereck outlined the left's and the right's approach to evil thus, ''The liberal sees outer, removable institutions as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as creating a world in which evil will disappear … The conservative sees the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as coming to terms with a world in which evil is perpetual and in which justice and compassion will both be perpetually necessary. His tools for this task are the maintenance of ethical restraints inside the individual and the maintenance of unbroken, continuous social patterns inside the given culture as a whole'' (35).
The sex abuse survivors I have known have all been, in their actions and worldview, deeply conservative, according to Viereck's definition. Academic feminism has been wildly leftist. "Patriarchy" is to blame. According to Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, humanity was egalitarian and peaceful before patriarchy was invented and ruined everything. This patriarchy is popularly understood to be a Judeo-Christian invention (Antonelli). Interestingly, Eisler's utopian book shares roots with Nazism's neo-paganism (Anthony).
Academic feminists group patriarchy with colonialism and white supremacy as the antagonists that must be eliminated before sexual abuse can stop. The usual suspects are heterosexual, white, male, Christian Westerners. To support this position, selective focus is applied. Feminists have devoted much energy to protesting sexism in America, but are less likely to note sexism in non-Western and non-white societies, for example, mass female infanticide and resultant high sex ratios in Hindu, Muslim, and Confucian Asia (Hudson), or culturally-supported gang-rape among Australian Aborigines (Nowra). And feminists have chosen to ignore the key role white, Christian imperialists played in resisting sati (suttee), or widow burning, in India and foot-binding in China.
In recent years, sociobiologists have developed a scientific answer to the evil of sex abuse. The urge to rape is a Darwinian inevitability. Men's urge to rape can be thwarted through training; women can be trained to protect themselves (Thornhill and Palmer 5). Though associated with atheism, this view jibes with the right-wing position: civilization is something humans create to protect the vulnerable and rein in exploitative impulses.
Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth, Professor of German at Middle Tennessee State University, and Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of Remember the Women Institute, describes itself as "the first English-language book to address the sexual violation of Jewish women during the Holocaust" (1).
Sexual Violence is an anthology with contributions by eighteen different authors. It is a choppy read, and the aesthetic discomfort it engenders in the reader signals deeper problems. For example, it is asserted several times that attention has not been paid to sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. This assertion is merely repeated, without any sustained analysis as to why. The repetitions should have been edited out. The lack of analysis of this lacuna in the vast body of Holocaust scholarship is a serious problem, for reasons that will be discussed, below. There is no attempt to systematize knowledge about sexual violence against Jewish women. How many victims were there, how did Nazi or Soviet policy affect violations, how did aid agencies respond or record these violations? No attempt is made to answer these questions definitively.
Sexual violence against non-Jewish women is mentioned, but it is not focused on, and non-Jewish survivors' voices are not heard. Polish and Romani contributors are absent from the book's list of authors. There may be sound scholarly reasons for focusing on sex abuse of Jewish women, and not non-Jewish women. Those reasons are never so much as alluded to in the text.
In fact, every form of sex abuse against Jewish women described in Sexual Violence was committed against non-Jewish women as well. The text pays much attention to Nazis shaving Jewish women's heads; this painful process reduced Jewish women to "animals" to the "sub-human" to "a species they have never seen before" (77). Polish concentration camp inmates' heads were also shaved. Jewish women traded sex for food or other forms of protection. Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, was forced to provide sexual services to a 70 year old Nazi in order to safeguard the lives of the twelve Jews she saved. Nazis sterilized Jewish women. Nazis developed several methods to suppress reproduction of Poles, including forced sterilization. Nazis passed race laws criminalizing sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews. Hitler demanded that any Polish man who had sex with a German woman be shot, and that the German woman be pilloried and sent to a concentration camp. Germany exploited millions of Slavic slave laborers. Slavic women were impounded in brothels to service them, to prevent sex relations between Germans and Slavs. Germans who had Slavic slave laborers received a notification stating, "Keep German blood pure … every German who has intimate relations with a Polish man or woman transgresses" (Weikart 146-47). Jewish women witnessed the deaths of their children. Polish women watched their children starve in Ravensbruck and elsewhere. Ravensbruck is mentioned again and again in the text. Poles outnumbered Jews in Ravensbruck.
Nazis enslaved German and Polish women in brothels in concentration camps. A chilly, decontextualized chapter of Sexual Violence acknowledges this. Polish female victims are statistics; in contrast to treatment of Jewish victims, no attempt is made to add flesh to exploited Polish womens' bones, poignancy to their plight. The book repeatedly refers to Jewish women who, the authors insist, were similarly enslaved, in spite of Nazi policy forbidding it. It seems bizarre to insist that Jewish women's being violated in this way matters, and is part of the larger Nazi project of genocide, and that Jewish women's grief over this is worth attending to, but that none of that applies to Polish women. Romani, aka Gypsies, are cited throughout the text as suffering the same fate as Jewish women. Gypsies are not Jews; most in Europe are Catholic.
The most macabre account in the book details five women in advanced stages of pregnancy, weakened by starvation in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, struggling to give birth during a death march to Auschwitz, but too weakened to fully expel their newborns. The women were in labor for three days, snow falling the entire time. The concentration-camp-survivor witness reports that the event was so gruesome that "That was a picture which I shall not be able to forget in my lifetime" (143). All five women were Yugoslavs, and non-Jews.
Further, Sexual Violence points out that starvation in concentration camps especially victimized Jewish women because it shrank their breasts and hips, "regions stereotypically associated with femininity and attractiveness" (80). Concentration camp starvation similarly shrink areas of men's bodies associated with masculinity, for example their biceps. It's not clear why focus on Jewish women, exclusive of Jewish men, is necessary here.
I do not point out these realities as part of an effort to protect Poland's good name, or to enter Poland in the dubious honor of being counted as victim, but rather to argue that while Sexual Violence's selective focus may serve currently popular academic ideology, it does not best serve understanding. Sexual Violence's foreword states that the book begins the exploration of a "horrific chapter in the history of men and women, and of Jews and antisemites" (x). Those dichotomies – men v. women, antisemites v. Jews – are inadequate to plumb the questions at hand.
The emphasis on Jewish women may be easier to understand if one factors in potential reasons why, as the authors repeat again and again, sexual abuse of women has been ignored in Holocaust scholarship. As my own book, Bieganski, points out, some Jews cite the Holocaust as an identity-cementing aid in a time of increased secularism and assimilation. Focus on women's suffering might threaten some readers because it vitiates the Holocaust's cited ability to keep Jews united and feeling Jewish. There is another reason. How we categorize molds how we think, and vice versa. If one focuses on gender as a significant category, Jewish women have something in common with Polish Catholic women victims. Some would prefer not to see that happen.
It gets more challenging. One of the most notorious gender-related atrocities in history was the mass rape of women, including German women, by the advancing Red Army. These rapes were sanctioned by Soviet leadership (Beevor). One cannot adequately focus on sexual violations committed against any ethnicity in WW II without at least placing such violations in the context of these mass rapes. Acknowledging that communism produced this mass crime against women will be challenging to some scholars who would like to locate the source of sexual violence in a patriarchy invented by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Further, mentioning Soviet mass rapes of Germans will tempt the reader to feel sympathy for, and solidarity with, German women. Sympathy for and solidarity with women who had cheered on Nazism is difficult. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an eyewitness. His poem "Prussian Nights" forces the confrontation upon us:
The little daughter's on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl's been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse.
It's all come down to simple phrases:
Do not forget! Do not forgive!
Blood for blood! A tooth for a tooth!
There is another reason why sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust has been under-examined, and that the authors never so much as hint at it does not speak well for their ability to profoundly probe this topic. Men are supposed to protect their womenfolk from the ravages of other men. Those men who fail to do so feel special pain and humiliation. The pain and shame of Jewish men whom he assessed as failing in this duty was vividly provoked by H. N. Bialik. Bialik, "Israel's National Poet," described the 1903 Kishniev pogrom in his poem, "In the City of Slaughter." Bialik describes Jewish men crouched, hiding in corners, watching their wives, sisters, daughters and fiancées being raped. "In the City of Slaughter" played a role in the formation of self-defense groups in Russia and the Haganah in Palestine. The point here is not that Jewish men had the ability to protect Jewish women from Nazi violations – Jewish men did not have that power. The point is that, given the tradition of men assuming responsibility for their women, some will feel that Jewish men failed in their task to protect Jewish women, and this feeling makes discussion of sexual violations against Jewish women too uncomfortable to Jewish men to be acceptable. The same goes for Polish men, Gypsy men, or, indeed, for the suburban American father whose daughter is raped. Part of what makes it hard for that man to confront what happened to his daughter is that he will torment himself with the merciless conviction that he should have been there, and he should have protected her, and that he has failed as a man. Indeed, sexual violation of women is also a violation of the men who love them. The authors miss, or choose to downplay, this point.
The theme of Jewish men's failure to protect Jewish women is in the background of Miryam Sivan's contribution to the volume. Sivan teaches in Israel. She reports that "Jews in the Diaspora" are "intimidated" by the topic of sexual violence against Jewish women, and so it is "cloaked in denial." Israelis, on the other hand, command "military agency," they emphasize "durability, resilience, and fortitude" (201) so they are not afraid to address the topic.
There is disturbing and unfortunate material in Sexual Violence that supports the chauvinist interpretation of the book's emphasis on Jewish, exclusive of other, women. Sexual Violence is yet another Holocaust book that works to displace rage against and guilt for German Nazi crimes onto Polish Catholics. If "Sexual Violence" were fully to include Polish Catholic women victims in its purview, its displacement of Holocaust guilt from Nazis to Poles would make less sense.
Most accounts of sexual violence in the book are brief and disjointed from original context. The longest account of sexual violence against a Jewish female is two pages long. It does not describe an assault by a German Nazi, rather, in detail, it describes an assault by a Catholic Pole on a Jewish girl. Another account details a Polish Catholic priest who protects a Jewish girl from rapist Poles. Disgusted with his own people, this priest removes his cross from his neck, throws it to the ground, and announces that, from this moment forward, he is a Jew (228). A remarkable feature of both accounts is that they are both fiction. That's right – a scholarly book published by a university press addressing assaults against Jewish women during the Holocaust – for which there is a heartbreakingly large amount of veridical data – resorts to reserving its longest uninterrupted passages to fictional accounts in which Polish Catholics, not German Nazis, are the perpetrators. In case the reader misses the point that Poles are responsible for the Holocaust, one author, S. Lillian Kremer, emerita distinguished professor, hammers it home. She applauds the author of the fictional piece she discusses for "masterfully adding German to characterize the Polish betrayer" thereby the author "links the Polish blackmailer to Nazism." The Pole "allies himself with the Nazis" (185). In another "masterful" touch, one fiction story cited in the book depicts a rescuer honored at Yad Vashem as merely a rapist who saved Jews (and risked death for the entire family at the hands of the Nazis thereby) just to have a Jewish female to rape. The rapist is not isolated; his parents and the village priest know about his crimes. These Righteous Gentiles just did it for the sex. This narrative works to undermine even the respect and gratitude one might cede to Polish rescuers at Yad Vashem. If there is any doubt, the subsequent paragraph demolishes it. Jews died not because of Nazism, but because of Poles' "ingrained antisemitism" (225). We must be exposed to such stories, "Sexual Violence"'s editors, Hedgepeth and Saidel insist, even if they are fiction, because "there is danger that the perpetrator may be recast as the victim" (231). One may not talk of Poles as victims of Nazis. One must tell stories in which Poles are perpetrators. Because, of course, Poles are worse than Nazis. "Not every German was bad," the book reminds the reader. Contributor Eva Fogelman, a psychologist, quotes one Jewish Holocaust survivor as reporting, "I was never raped by a German. Not one German ever laid a finger on me." The Germans, Fogelman reports, "liked her looks, but treated her like a Fraulein, giving her food and milk." "By contrast with her praise of the Germans, she said, 'What I do hate is Ukrainians and Poles. I shiver when I see them in the streets'" (269). In case the reader misses the point, Fogelman, lists "Germans, Poles, Ukrainians" as "persecutors" (272).
Given the history of the use of The Painted Bird as Holocaust educational material, the use of fictional accounts of Polish Catholic men acting as Nazis in their rape of Jewish women in a first-of-its-kind scholarly book is especially unfortunate. The Painted Bird was a sensationalistic novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It depicted bestial Slavic men committing sex crimes against women. The book was presented as autobiographical non-fiction, and used in Holocaust education classes. Later, Joanna Siedlecka, a Polish writer, exposed The Painted Bird as fiction. Kosinski had survived the war with the aid of Polish Catholics.
There is another possible reason why Sexual Violence downplays Polish victimization at the hands of the Nazis. The book reports that "Extreme racism dominated National Socialist ideology. This racism was particularly aimed at two groups of people, Jews and so-called Gypsies" (33). Poles are not included in this formulation. One wonders why Gypsies are. Perhaps because the authors classify Gypsies as non-white and their inclusion supports the understanding that white people are uniquely guilty of racism, and non-whites are uniquely victimized by it. The author of the above quote cites a work entitled "The Privilege of Invisibility: Racism from the Viewpoint of Being White." The book devotes time to explaining how Africans in Europe were victimized by Nazi racial ideology (159), though Africans in Europe were very few in number, constituted a statistically insignificant number of victims of Nazism, and were not a focus of Nazi ideology. Though Poles are quite pale-skinned, they were categorized as racially inferior by both Nazis and the Scientific Racists in the US, including Madison Grant, who inspired the Nazis. Including Poles in the list of those significantly victimized by the Nazis would throw a monkey wrench at the "whites are victimizers; darker skinned persons are victims" Politically Correct construct.
If guilt for the Holocaust, including sexual violation of Jewish women, can be displaced from neo-Pagan, atheist, and scientific Nazis onto the famously Catholic Poles, the belief that evil is a product of "patriarchy," a human invention associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, is supported. A human invention, patriarchy, makes men rape, not human nature. To stop rape and other sexual abuses, we need not look to human nature, we need not demand that men and women take stock of themselves and learn to confront and defeat evil in their own hearts, rather, we must progress past the alleged sexism of the West and of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Anyone who has stopped going to church and who votes left gets a free pass, and need never examine his own misogyny.
In any case, any reader might object to Sexual Violence's inclusion of fictional, and cinematic, accounts. An entire chapter is devoted to Yehiel Dinur's work, which has been denounced as both fictional and pornographic. Only in the footnotes does this chapter's author acknowledge that Dinur, though writing about his sister, never had a sister. A chapter is devoted to films, including The Night Porter, a soft-porn, Holocaust-exploitation movie. Another chapter details a self-published, sado-masochistic sex fantasy. This chapter's author, Eva Fogelman, theorizes that sex abuse may have turned the Holocaust-survivor author of this fantastical account into a crazy liar (258, 263). Survivors of sexual assault have always been called liars. To include fictional accounts in this book dishonors survivors of such abuse.
The Jews v. antisemites, men v. women construct can't get to the truth of sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. One can easily find photographic souvenirs posted on the web of Indonesian Muslim men gang raping non-Muslim, Chinese women during the 1998 Jakarta riots. Accounts of rape in Congo and Darfur abound. Women continue to do sexual violence to other women, both in and out of conflict zones. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, during the Rwandan Genocide, incited the mass rape, murder, and torture of Tutsi women – though she herself was both a woman, and of at least partial Tutsi descent. Jews raped, as well. The most notorious is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat in the Lodz Ghetto. He is mentioned once in Sexual Violence, and only in passing. Understanding sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust will be advanced, not hampered, by factoring in sexual violence against all victims during all periods of chaos. To fully honor the chosen topic, one must understand more than the chosen topic. To do less is to fall prey to the same failing that the authors themselves criticize others for falling prey to: to marginalize other victims, including those Polish internees at Ravensbruck and in the concentration camp brothels, to marginalize women who were raped by other women and the number, however small, of Jewish women raped by Jews. A specific example: in her article, Nomi Levenkron, an Israeli attorney, mentions "trafficking Jewish Eastern European women to South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." She cites Edward Bristow's book Prostitution and Prejudice. Bristow's book is a harrowing read. Unlike Levenkron's formulation, it does not hesitate to identify who was doing this horrific trafficking: Jewish men. Levenkron is more forthcoming in the rest of her article, citing instances where vulnerable Jewish girls and women were sexually menaced or at least used by Jewish men, including a girl in hiding with an adult Jewish man (21), a Jewish Red Army captain who did not protect women menaced by Red Army soldiers (19) and forest-dwelling partisans who exchanged protection for sex (22). These mentions of violations that do not fit the book's overall dichotomies of "men and women, Jews and anti-Semites" are never woven into any final analysis.
Examples of what struck this reader as ideologically-tinged scholarship and jargon include the following. After the above-described account of Yugoslav concentration camp victims struggling to give birth in snow, which would seem to require no commentary to amplify its tragedy, the article's author, Helga Amesberger, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna, steps in to explain that "according to bourgeois patriarchal notions, motherhood is to be understood as the fulfillment of a woman's life." Women "suffer when they cannot meet society's expectations" (145). "The female body is seen as the "symbolic representation of the national body" (31), Brigitte Halbmayr, also at the Institute of Conflict Research, reports in her contribution. "The root cause for sexualized violence is widely seen as located in … the centuries-old tradition of patriarchal societies" (32). Kirsty Chatwood places pomo scare quotes around the word "factual" (61). Monika J. Flaschka attributes sexual violence to a "rape culture," (78) thus suggesting that there are such things as non-rape cultures that one might aspire to. She makes this clear: "I operate under the assumption that gender identities are constructed … are performed in social environments" (79). She suggests that there are societies where rape is not such a big deal: "there is nothing inherent or given about the effect of rape on the development or maintenance of gender identities. Rather, rape is assigned a specific meaning by specific societies … gender identities are constructed, fluid, performed in a theoretical sense … [rape is not] a transhistorical mechanism of women's oppression" (79). Rape follows a "script," Flaschka reports; the scare quotes are hers. "women were perceived as rapable" Flaschka says (89). Again, this awkward and ugly word suggests that Flaschka believes in a brave new world where women are not rapable. "The 'rape script' can be changed so that rape ceases to be a way to define what it means to be a woman." We can "imagine" women free of "rapability" (90, 93). The hard reality we must all come to terms with is that no such rape-free world exists, or has ever existed, or can be "imagined" into existence by pomo scholarship.
There is an unforgettable passage in Bernat Rosner's Holocaust memoir. He describes being rounded up in his Hungarian hometown.
Right in front of him, Bernie's mother was forced to take off all her clothes. He had to watch while, naked and helpless, she was searched at the hands of a hostile Nazi thug. One might argue that Bernie had to endure worse atrocities later at Auschwitz and beyond, but he was only twelve, and he had never seen an adult, much less his mother, naked. The evil mix of forced nudity, the public humiliation, and the physical molestation converged to form an enormous emotional shock for him that symbolized a loss of innocence as well as the beginning of unimaginable horrors to come. For a brief moment, Bernie's mother was stripped of her social persona, her family status, and turned into a helpless creature subjected to the crude hands of an anonymous oppressor. (72)
I learned more from Rosner's passage about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust than I did from Hedgepeth and Saidel's entire book. Sex abuse dehumanizes and commodifies its victims. Sometimes so does scholarship.
Anthony, D. W. 1995. Nazi and Eco-Feminist Prehistories: Ideology and Empiricism in Indo-European Archaeology. In "Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology," eds. P. L. Kohl and C. Fawcett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 82-96.
Antonelli, Judith S. "Debunking the Goddess Myth." Utne Reader. November-December, 1997.
Beevor, Antony. Berlin: The Downfall, 1945. London: Penguin, 2003.
Goska, Danusha V. Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010.
Hedgepeth, Sonja M. and Rochelle G. Saidel. Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010.
Hudson, Valerie and Andrea den Boer. Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
Nowra, Louis. Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men's Violence Against Women and Children. North Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2007.
Rosner, Bernat and Sally P. Tubach. An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Thornhill, Randy and Craig T. Palmer. "Why Men Rape." The Sciences. (Jan/Feb 2000): 30-36.
Viereck, Peter. "Unadjusted Man." Transaction, 2004.
Weikart, Richard. Hitler's ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
The editors of Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust responded to Dr. Goska's review. Click here to read the response.
Danusha Goska is the author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture, winner of the 2010 Halecki Award. Her work also appears in the books Folklore Muse and The Impossible Will Take a Little While.